Wednesday, September 29, 2010
An empty shell casing. That was the hardest evidence police found in the murder of mob daughter Susan Berman.
This is a story that begins in old Las Vegas with gangsters and the boys from the Jewish mob. It moves to San Francisco with the movers and shakers, to New York City and the literati, ending in Beverly Hills with the glitterati. It is a story about a path to murder.
Just before Christmas 2000, Susan, a screenwriter and author, was murdered, shot once in the back of the head with a 9-millimeter handgun. Her body was found a day and a half later, face down in her rundown, rented Benedict Canyon home, after neighbors reported Susan's dogs loose in the wooded area. During Susan’s lifetime, she had amassed a small fortune, only to lose it. She died penniless, a world apart from the one she’d grown up in.
She was the daughter of Davie Berman, Bugsy Siegal’s partner at the Flamingo Hotel. She was reared in the lap of luxury and Las Vegas royalty as the daughter of a notorious casino mogul and mob leader. It wasn't until college that Susan learned what her father really did for a living. The murder of Davie Berman’s only child had all the earmarks of a professional hit aimed at a person borne into the criminal underworld. That theory, however, was one of the first to be ruled out by investigators.
Recently, MSNBC took a close look at Susan’s case, interviewing friends, family and investigators. I, too, was interviewed, first in Las Vegas, then at a studio in Los Angeles. The producer said he based MSNBC's piece upon my book, Murder of a Mafia Daughter.
Los Angeles Police Department lead Detective Paul Coulter, whom I interviewed at length for the book and who chimed in for MSNBC, had a hunch. Whoever shot Susan in cold blood, he said, had done so by going through her front door. If she’d let someone in, that person was no stranger to her. Everyone knew Susan was careful.
Coulter began investigating everyone she had been dealing with. In the process, he discovered that Susan had rubbed some people the wrong way, including her elderly landlord, Dee Schiffer. Coulter also learned that Schiffer had been in the process of evicting Susan, which Susan had been legally fighting, for not paying her rent.
Susan also had a not-so-perfect relationship with her personal manager, Nyle Brenner, whom police also questioned, going so far as to search his house and office. But they stopped just short of calling him a suspect.
And, of course, there was Bobby Durst, Susan’s lifelong friend, who in the months before Susan’s murder had been living in Texas disguised as, of all things, a mute woman. Susan is believed to be the one who provided an alibi years earlier for Bobby after his wife Kathleen disappeared (that case remains unsolved). Susan loved Bobby like a sibling and would have done anything for him. A few months before her own death, Susan had asked Bobby for money to buy a used SUV and to catch her up on her rent. She sent the letter to his family’s business when she couldn’t locate him. Bobby sent Susan two checks, for $25,000 each, and told her the money was a gift. Susan had been unable to find him because Durst had been traveling, including in Texas.
A few months after Susan’s murder, in 2001, after arguing with Morris Black, an older neighbor in Galveston, Durst shot Black, then chopped up his body, wrapped the pieces in plastic bags, and dumped the remains in Galveston Bay. Durts, released on bail, fled the area. When he was later arrested, found in the trunk of Bobby’s car were two guns, one a 9 millimeter, the same caliber Susan was killed with. But, according to Detective Coulter, “The ballistics test was inconclusive.”
Durst pleaded self-defense in the Black case and his powerhouse attorney DeGuerin ultimately landed an acquittal for his client. Today, Bobby Durst is a free man.
As the lead detective on the case, Coulter, a veteran officer, said he would have done things differently in the Susan Berman investigation had homicide investigators been brought in early to handle the case. His office, in the Homicide-Robbery unit at LAPD’s Parker Center, however, was not given the case until 11 long days after Susan’s death.
In December of this year, a decade will have passed, with police no closer to solving the murder than they were in the winter of 2000.
In my research, I've gotten to know Susan. I walked through the English tudor home on South Sixth Street in downtown Vegas where she'd lived her first 12 years. It was a bright, cheerful house. I imagined her as a child, running down the long hallway into the welcome arms of the father she adored. I drove the route from her Las Vegas home to her Benedict Canyon house in Beverly Hills. I visited the restaurants she frequented in the town she loved and called home during the final 17 years of her life.
I went to the University of California, Berkeley campus where Susan earned her master's degree in journalism and where protests against the war in Vietnam were rampant. Susan made lifelong friends while attending Berkeley--friends in the writing world who later tossed work her way.
I visited her home in Benedict Canyon where she was murdered and found it gloomy and dark. Someone else lives there now.
And, finally, I visited the Home of Peace cemetery in East Los Angeles where Susan’s body is entombed in a marble wall alongside her mother, father, and uncle. A recent visitor had left flowers in bud vases for her mother Gladys, father Davie and her uncle Chickie. Susan's vases, one on either side of her shiny-brass headstone, were empty. I stood there looking at her grave, regretting I had not brought her a flower.
I only wish I could have met Susan face to face. She wanted so much to be famous, to be recognized for her work. Today, long after her death, her work has become well known. There's a long waiting list at public libraries to check out her writings. And her books fetch high prices, in the hundred range, on Internet auction sites. Had she lived to see it, Susan would have been pleased. She no doubt would have chuckled at the irony of it all. She also would have pondered the intrigue of her own murder investigation as it unfolded. That was her forte.
All evidence points to Susan being cut down by someone she not only knew, but who was a trusted friend she welcomed into her home. That irony, too, however tragic, would have piqued Susan's interest. It’s a sad case, and sadder still that Susan’s killer has not been brought to justice. Who, indeed, killed Susan Berman?
Cathy Scott is currently working on a 2nd edition of Murder of a Mafia Daughter, digging deep, seeking answers, to questions still raised in the case.Tweet